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Adam Bryant, Senior Advisor to the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, speaks to Reuben Mark, former CEO of the Colgate-Palmolive Company, who shares his insights around leading in times of crisis. This special interview, which comes at a time of worldwide confusion amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, is the third installment in our "As the Leader" series.
Adam: What are your observations on the challenges of leading in a crisis like this?
Reuben: Companies will find this period easier to navigate if they have already established a culture that allows them to act more firmly and humanely in times like these. Employees around the world will know from past experiences whether their company really cares about them, and will act on their behalf. They will know that people will be the first priority because it’s been demonstrated in the past.
An existing culture like that makes it easier to lead in times of crisis, rather than suddenly changing the organization to deal with it, because there will be institutional resistance to crisis-induced organization change because they’re not the usual way of operating.
You must communicate much more regularly to everyone in the organization, perhaps even daily. If people in the organization are depending upon one another and there are clean lines of responsibility, then you’re going to improve your chances of coming out strong on the other side of it. The last thing you want is people running around, bumping into walls and screaming, and a lot of that has to do with cultural norms that have been established beforehand.
Adam: Communication is so important at times like this, and it has to balance both confidence and realism. How should CEOs convey that message?
Reuben: The objective is to communicate to everyone that we’re in this together, that we have your interest at heart and that keeping you and your family healthy is our primary concern. Indeed, it’s important that we treat each other like a family, so we’ll worry about you first, and if that means we lose some business, we’ll lose some business.
This thinking cannot be established in any emergency situation; it must be developed over previous years.
The message that has to be conveyed is that as a fellow employee or as a consumer, we truly have your best interest at heart. Indeed, our results may be damaged. But the important thing is to keep our organization intact, not destroy what we’ve built up over a long period of time, and keep everyone healthy so that when we come out of this, which we will, we will continue on an upward trend.
If the communication lines are open and nobody’s afraid of calling the boss and giving bad news, then that makes everything much easier. Hopefully you’ve set that tone for years beforehand, and then that makes your job easier when the crisis is actually happening. It all ties back to the organizational character of a company.
Adam: The three core values you established at Colgate-Palmolive would seem to be particularly relevant in times of crisis.
Reuben: Everything that you do, perhaps more rapidly than ever, should tie back to your company’s values. For Colgate-Palmolive, our value of caring meant caring for each other and for the organization and for customers. We found the caring value the most important, because that leads to cooperation, and it helps guide decision-making.
Another of Colgate-Palmolive’s three values is continuous improvement, which leads to mean that we’re going to learn from all of our mistakes, and get a little better every day. Continuous improvement means we’re going to be better a month from now and a year from now. We will keep analyzing our mistakes so we will be better in the future. Without it, you’re going to make a crisis worse if there are silos or no communication or no real teamwork.
Our third value is global teamwork, and the need for this is self-evident; without it you’re going to make a crisis much worse if there are silos or poor communication or lack of teamwork.
Adam: What are your predictions on how this pandemic will change society long-term?
Reuben: My humble opinion is that there will be significant socioeconomic change because the people who really need help are not going to get it. For many years, there will be a large number of citizens and families at all levels who will be severely damaged both emotionally and financially.
It will also, of course, shake out some of the weaker companies with poor cultures. I don’t think any of the organizations that are vital for the country to continue to forge ahead will go under because the government is inclined not to let that happen.
The next year will be extremely painful, but a valuable learning experience for all of us.